As the school year resumes next week, Missouri teachers will have to think twice about making private contact with students on Internet sites such as Facebook.
The state's school districts are under orders to draft policies to comply with a new law restricting such communications in an effort to prevent inappropriate relationships between teachers and students.
But the law is drawing criticism from some educators who say it goes too far.
"It kind of assumes all teachers are guilty, and that is not the message we need," said Christopher Wright, a third-grade teacher in Rolla, Mo. and president of the local chapter of the Missouri State Teachers Association.
Representatives of the teachers group and the Missouri School Boards Association said they knew of no other state with a law mirroring the one in Missouri.
The teachers association plans to ask Missouri lawmakers in January to modify the law, which takes effect on Aug. 28 and will be enforced starting Jan. 1, 2012. School districts have until then to draft policies reflecting the law.
The American Civil Liberties Union is exploring a likely legal challenge to the law as an unconstitutional breach of free speech, said Doug Bonney, legal director for the ACLU of Kansas and Western Missouri.
"We have tons of calls coming into our office on this issue," Bonney said. "The vast majority of teachers are using social media very appropriately and effectively in our state."
High school students in particular live in a virtual world and to cut contact in that sphere could be unwise, said Brent Ghan, spokesman of the Missouri School Boards Association.
"That is how you communicate with them," Ghan said.
Missouri State Sen. Jane Cunningham said the law is only a small piece of a larger bill the legislature passed unanimously last spring in response to cases in which teachers developed sexual relationships with students, sometimes leading to abuse.
"I've been working on this bill or four years, and all of a sudden the whole world is interested in it," said Cunningham, a St. Louis Republican.
"It's gotten a lot of attention because of misinformation," she added.
Teachers can still befriend students on Facebook or be in other Internet contact as long as the sites are open to administrators, parents or others, he said.
Allowing strictly private contact between teachers and students has proven to lead to some secret, improper relationships, she said.
The new law restricts texting, e-mails and website contacts.
Several school districts in Missouri already have policies preventing private student-teacher friendships on Facebook and similar sites, but this law can be construed to ban personal contacts on strictly academic sites as well, Wright said.
For instance, Wright said students in his class are allowed to ask him questions about course work privately on an Internet study site. This can be helpful to shy students, but the new state law would apparently outlaw that, Wright said.
"It kind of criminalizes (such) behavior," Wright said.
Cunningham said teacher organizations supported the broader bill when it passed and did not raise concerns about the teacher-student Internet contact provision until recently.
A major thrust of the bill was to keep teachers from going back into teaching if they have been dismissed for sexual impropriety with students.
Under the new law, a district must tell the next potential school employer why a teacher was let go or accept liability, Cunningham said.
Cunningham said she does not favor revising the law except to allow teachers to have Internet contact with their own children who are students.
"We are always open to revising language, but since some districts have already passed laws like this, it must be working in areas of the state," Cunningham said.
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